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Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five

posted Mar 13, 2017, 7:03 AM by Rebecca Hanko   [ updated Mar 13, 2017, 7:05 AM ]

Time travel, war, suicide, gross satire, The Three Musketeers, life, beauty, love, prayer, a Blue Fairy Godmother, aliens? What? This book has it all. It’s sad, hilarious, serious, and ridiculous. There’s not an emotion out there that I can think of which this book doesn’t tap on the shoulder of.

Slaughterhouse Five is a satirical novel by Kurt Vonnegut about World War II, and one of my favorite novels. The story is essentially a journey through the life and time of a soldier named Billy Pilgrim. Billy externally faces various struggles with society: his most interesting conflict with society is the fact that Billy wholeheartedly believes he was kidnapped by Tralfamadorians (yes, aliens! I won’t give you too much here, but if none of this sparks your interest, then I’ll just mention the fact that Billy is displayed in a “zoo in a simulated Earthling habitat” (Vonnegut 143)), but, society rejects his accusations. This may surprise you, but the whole alien subplot here totally counts as a manifestation of Billy’s extreme internal struggle to cope with the tragedy that surrounds him.

Throughout the book, the setting is shown as erratic, random, unusual, dissociated. It jumps through time and space, the real and unreal—paralleling the mind of the main character Billy Pilgrim, who is stuck in a life of conflict, and misfortune.

Now, imagine you’re scrolling through Facebook. You let reality fade into the background as a small screen sucks you in. One minute you are listening to the latest gossip from a friend, the next you’re learning a recipe for the best chocolate cake (ever!). Now you’re in a third world country, feeling sadness, and anger. Next thing you know you’re learning to dance, learning information on WWII, or of a new (to you) kind of fish, then begin watching a trailer for the latest sci-fi movie. You are jumping around through time and reality. Your emotions are all over the place, and you have no idea what will come next. This experience is similar to the experience of reading Slaughterhouse Five. Billy tries in many ways to cope with his experiences—the huge amount of tragedy that surrounds his life. He becomes stuck in a weird disassociation of time and reality as a method to watch his life over and over, in order to learn acceptance of what he has been through. War, home, aliens, dreams, home, war, televisions playing backwards, making love in a human zoo, home—the narrative structure of the book jumps through scenes that take you through a whirlwind of vivid imagery and emotion, and is really the most interesting aspect of the book. We are taken through a journey which can place us anywhere at any time, and just as Billy, we’re are not entirely prepared for the jump, but go along with it as best we can. We analyze, and accept.  

Billy is a wonderfully crafted dynamic character who, in many unique ways, changes in order to cope with his experiences. This change acts as a substitute for the control he lacks in life. He was thrown into war and subjected to the violence of it. As hard as Billy tries, “Among the things Billy Pilgrim could not change were the past, the present, and the future” (Vonnegut 77). He cannot change the life he has lived, but he can live, and he can cope and accept (in his own way). Billy, who was weak, ill-prepared and lacked dignity, ultimately was able to walk into the fire of war and come out the other side, unscathed—showing his strength. He has an uncanny ability to change his attitude in order to cope with the death-filled surroundings that endure his life, even his own death, in which he knows the exact date of and how it will happen (So it goes). His unique thinking enables him to change from a weak person to a fearless observer of life. 

Slaughterhouse Five is an extremely interesting and fun novel to read, and analyze. I recommend it highly.